31 July 2009

The Digital Age: Expanding the Frontiers of Ignorance

A recent article in More Intelligent Life got off to a good start: instantaneous access to worlds of information is producing not more intelligent humans but, instead, more and more ignoramuses. The knowledge that all knowledge is at one's fingertips licenses one not to keep any knowledge in one's mind. (Reading and remembering are taxing, after all--and, as with almost everything else--why put forth the effort if it's not necessary?)

But the article concludes with a whimper: everything is pretty much okay, so don't worry; putting forth effort to learn isn't necessary for being an intelligent person.

That is a comforting falsehood.

(On this topic, one might read Mark Bauerlein's sobering book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30).)

23 July 2009

This Just In: "Intimidator in Chief"?

A report in today's WSJ describes President Obama's alleged attempt to "lean on" "Douglas Elmendorf, the director of the supposedly nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, who last week told Congress that you can’t 'save' money on health care by having government insure everyone."

Elmendorf seems clearly right, at least to me: the Obama administration's claim that universal insurance will save money is hard to take seriously. But that is beside the point. What is more troubling is the apparent attempt to silence dissenting opinion. As I mentioned in a previous post, officials at the EPA, apparently with approval from the Obama administration, recently took actions to quash a report from some of its own scientists that questioned some of the central assumptions behind Obama administration climate initiatives. This second incident now suggests a worrisome pattern.

Politics should not trump the truth, and our political agendas should not be allowed to interfere with the vigorous pursuit of the truth. We often do not know what the truth is, and often people of good faith disagree about important issues. That is an abiding fact of the limitations in human abilities. The only way to make the most of our limited abilities, however, is to allow open discussion and debate, and to encourage unfettered pursuit of the facts, regardless of where that leads.

09 July 2009

This Just In: An Excellent New Book on Adam Smith

I just received my advance copy of Ryan Patrick Hanley's excellent new Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue. I know it's excellent because I had an opportunity to read it in manuscript. In fact, the back cover of the dust jacket leads off with a blurb from me, which reads, in part, that Hanley's book is "one of the most important books on Smith in more than a decade."

Believe me, praise like that does not come easily from me. Everyone interested in Smith scholarship should read the book.

07 July 2009

This Just In: Climate Change

Here is an interesting discussion of the economics of proposals for "climate change" legislation by economist Robert P. Murphy. It is brief and somewhat technical in a few places, but a good overview.

06 July 2009

Free Speech for Me, but Not for Thee

A troubling article in today's WSJ suggests that officials in the EPA are censoring research that might call into question their official position on (alleged) global warming and on its (alleged) man-caused influences. (I say "alleged" because among the claims that the censored research makes are (a) that we are actually in a global cooling trend and (b) that there is little or no reliable evidence that human activities have contributed to (earlier) global warming.)

What is especially galling to the author of the WSJ article is the fact that the Obama administration and the new head of the EPA both have repeatedly derided the previous administration for, as they claimed, putting ideology over science, and have touted their own dedication to science unadulterated by political agenda. Yet here seems a clear case of politics trumping scientific investigation.

I cannot vouch for the facts of this case, of course, but double-standards for allowed speech are rampant in my own field of American higher education. People who dare to stray from the approved circuit of political and moral views--however gingerly, however tentatively, even under cover of anonymity or humor--suffer ad hominem attack, have their characters savaged, are fired from positions of authority, do not get promotions, get passed over for positions for which they are otherwise qualified, are not welcome at the lunch table or in the break room, are ignored in the hallways, are the butt of indecorous jokes, and are otherwise villainized, punished, and pilloried for their independence and impudence.

I do not exaggerate. (See here if you are skeptical.) Political correctness in higher education has become such a cliché that people have become inured to it. Another person persecuted for dissenting from the reigning orthodoxy? Ho-hum, heard that one before. The toll this takes in individuals' careers, and in their personal and family life, is not insignificant, however.

But this is not mere special pleading. The cost to the the academy of driving out or silencing a range of perspectives is a steep one. As Mill argued, it robs us of a clearer and livelier perception of the truth brought about by honest debate and discussion from competing perspectives; moreover, unless we make the unlikely assumption that the current orthodoxy is infallible, silencing or persecuting dissenting views robs us of the opportunity for exchanging error for truth.

That is bad for everyone concerned. Echo chambers are not crucibles of truth. Yet it is even more dangerous when it comes to science. The quality of human life depends in many important ways on the progress of science. Allowing ideology to bend science to its will, rather than the other way around, imperils the scientific enterprise. That is too high a price to pay to flatter our vanities and rationalize our prejudices.

02 July 2009

Free Bernie Madoff?

A reader sent me a link to this column, arguing that Bernie Madoff should be freed. Now that is a position not many people, I suspect, are taking. As an employee of Yeshiva University, which, as I've pointed out before, also suffered at the hands of Madoff, I have taken particular interest in the continuing Madoff saga.

I'm not sure I'm convinced by this article, but the author makes a stronger case than I anticipated, so I thought it worth posting. Judge for yourself: here it is.

UPDATE: A reader sent me a link to another take on the Madoff caper, this one also provocative and entertaining. Here it is.

01 July 2009

An Opt-Out Option?

Thomas Sowell argued in his book A Conflict of Visions that much contemporary political thought traces to one or another of just two conflicting worldviews. These worldviews he dubbed the "constrained" and "unconstrained" visions (Steven Pinker would later later call them the "tragic" and the "utopian" visions, respectively).

The difference, in brief, centers on what a person believes the limits of human knowledge and goodness are: If you believe humans are inherently flawed and fallen, and that, though they can make marginal improvements, imperfection and evil (even sin) will always be an abiding part of the human experience, then you subscribe to the "constrained" or the "tragic" vision. If, by contrast, you believe that humanity can be indefinitely improved, and that, with the right combination of institutions and leaders in place, most human vice can be eradicated, then you subscribe to the "unconstrained" or "utopian" vision.

I would fall into the "constrained" or "tragic" camp, both on religious and on empirical grounds.

I mention Sowell's argument here, however, because one of its implications is that disagreements between proponents of the two "visions" are intractable. They have different worldviews, and their political and economic positions are implied by those fundamentally different worldviews. That explains both why differences between the two groups can become so acrimonious, and it also predicts, unhappily, that there may be little hope for reconciliation. They will often simply have to agree to disagree.

Which brings me to today. The Obama administration is proposing to nationalize a significant portion of the health care "industry" (as it's called), and many supporters have not hidden their desire eventually to nationalize the whole ball of wax. For many of them this government takeover is required by their conception of justice. Significant numbers of detractors and critics, on the other hand, argue not only that this may increase inefficiencies and costs, but also that it violates their sense of justice to take health care choices out of the hands of individuals.

So, drawing on the Sowell argument, here is my proposal for a compromise between the two sides: Pass the legislation, but include in it "opt-out option" for dissenters. Exercizing the opt-out option would mean forsaking any and all right to the care or coverage provided under the government's plan, but it would also mean no requirement to pay into it. Indeed, I would propose allowing an "opt-out option" for other government benefit programs as well, including Social Security, for example. Allow people who wish to be in charge of saving for their own retirement to opt out of the program, giving up any and all benefits, but not paying into the program either.

The biggest worry about my "opt-out option" is that such a number of people would exercise it that the program would not be able to sustain itself--and then the people who are intended to be the primary beneficiaries, the least advantaged among us, would once again be left in the lurch. I recognize and concede that worry. I have two thoughts in response.

First, my own conception of justice, which draws on the British and American liberal tradition, entails giving a tremendous deference to individual consent: if a person does not want to be part of my organization or my program, then I think I need a very strong reason to override his wishes. Imminent danger to national security, for example, might count, but the threshold should be that high.

Second, many people who could monetarily afford to leave the systems would choose not to. I have colleagues, for example, who would prefer to stay in Social Security or a nationalized health care system, if for no other reason than that way they do not have to bother with finding the "best" investment counselor or wading through myriad private health care providers and insurers. I expect many others would be moved by similar considerations.

Many people will also, out of their own sense of justice, wish to be a part of the systems even if they could afford to or would benefit from leaving, just as many people who could send their children to private schools choose for their own reasons to send them to public schools. Hence I think the number of people exercizing the "opt-out option" might not be as great as one might fear.

I confess, however, that even if I am wrong about the number of people who would exercise the option, I find the notion of respecting people's consent to be compelling nonetheless. If someone says "no, thank you, I want no part of your program," we can remonstrate with him, try to convince him otherwise, even beg, plead, or shame him; but if we insists, then I believe we must honor his wishes and let him go.